Film festivals are back in fashion.
After two years of COVID-19 restrictions, the film’s return from A-list festivals in person has reminded us all of what we’ve been missing with all those pared-back, socially distanced, or online-only replacement events. The spirit and energy of in-person film festivals has returned with a vengeance.
Whether it’s the supersonic spectacle of fighter jets thundering down the red carpet to Top Gun: Maverick premiere at Cannes; the army of teenage fans camped out on the Lido to catch a glimpse of Harry Styles or Timothée Chalamet; or the selfie-hungry troupes lining up outside Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall for TIFF’s opening night, the 2022 festival season provided a welcome return to the buzz and excitement that pre-COVID defined show business.
Much has been made of the importance of Cannes in the launch of Paramount Pictures’ Top Gun: Maverick and Warner Bros.’ Elvis – who both capitalized on the media frenzy surrounding their glitzy festival premieres to bring audiences back to cinemas. Olivia Wilde’s out-of-competition title don’t worry darling starring Harry Styles and Florence Pugh, has racked up hundreds of columns and millions of views on social media, thanks to its Venice premiere and the non-stop tabloid coverage that came with it.
Toronto, which in the words of TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey is becoming the “epicenter of the film world” for its 10-day run, is also counting on packed cinemas and screaming fans to bring back that old festival magic. And help revive a film industry still grappling with the damage COVID has inflicted on its business model.
“I’m very happy to know that the experience of letting the lights go out and being surrounded by hundreds of strangers has returned,” Bailey said. The Hollywood Reporter.
The COVID pandemic has forced TIFF, like most major festivals, to scale back significantly. In 2020, TIFF only screened about 60 feature films (this year the number is over 200, with more than 60 world premieres) and only a few in-person premieres, including socially distanced events like drive-ins and outdoor screenings. Most of the festival took place online, on a digital platform that gave accredited critics and industry guests access to official TIFF titles as well as around 30 films from the Film Market.
It was a practical solution to the reality of the pandemic, which had made international travel impossible. As a bonus, it also opened up access to North America’s largest film festival to dozens of critics and journalists who, for financial or other reasons, were unable to attend.
According to TIFF’s own figures, the festival’s 41 free talks and events in 2020 reached more than five million people worldwide through TIFF’s various social media channels.
But last year Toronto quickly reduced its digital offerings, limiting what anyone not on the ground at TIFF could watch. This year, TIFF dropped the hybrid model. The festival’s online platform offers a derisory selection of 24 titles, to which only the Canadian public has access.
This lackluster digital offering appears to contrast with TIFF’s goals, set out in its Media Inclusion Initiative, to widen access to the festival for critics and journalists from more marginalized backgrounds.
“TIFF believes it is equally important to ensure that the press that reports, reviews and publicizes the films represents a diversity of perspectives,” reads a TIFF press release on the initiative, which provides financial assistance to help those critics – the 2022 goal was for 100 recipients – to attend the festival.
But putting movies online gives better access to a much larger and potentially much more diverse group. A majority of critics quoted in a recent survey by Rotten Tomatoes, a contributor to the Media Inclusion Initiative, called on studios and festivals to “make screenings more accessible through hybrid and virtual events,” noting that “travel costs were always a major obstacle preventing them from attending major film festivals.
Alongside this aspect of financial control, where many of the journalists least likely to be able to afford to attend the festival are from the same marginalized groups that TIFF claims it wants to attract more, there is the question of accessibility. Even for those of us in good health, pulling off a 10-day film festival can be a challenge. Add to that mobility issues or a disability, and it can be overwhelming. Physical disabilities make it difficult to walk from theater to theater and wait in line. Neurodivergent journalists may find it intimidating to deal with the stress of attending a busy week-long festival with very little downtime. People with chronic pain or illnesses — including long COVIDs — may find attendance dangerously exhausting.
Hybrid events, with digital screens, solve many of these access issues and the experience of the past 2 years has proven that the technology is up to the challenge.
So why did TIFF and many other major festivals, including Cannes and Venice, abandon the hybrid model?
The reason, in part, is money.
A large part of TIFF’s budget comes from ticket sales, and the 2020 festival saw a 50% drop in revenue, with 48,280 public tickets sold, in-person and online, compared to 307,362 in 2019. (The festival would like to point out that, in addition to screening far fewer films for hybrid festivals, each online ticket typically represents multiple viewers.)
The full and sold-out Roy Thompson Hall and Princess of Wales theaters don’t just mean more box office. TIFF leverages its huge audience to attract corporate sponsorship, and in-person crowds outsell the masses online. Sponsorships accounted for approximately $10 million (C$13.5 million) in earned revenue for TIFF in 2019. Last year it was just over $6 million (C$8.07 million) .
After losing L’Oréal as the festival’s major sponsor – the French cosmetics giant ‘repositioned’ to one of TIFF’s lower sponsorship tiers – the festival was lucky to gain support from the luxury brand Bvlgari, which has joined RBC and Visa as three major sponsors of TIFF. for 2022.
The Canadian government has also stepped in to help, providing TIFF with a non-repayable investment of $7.6 million (C$10 million) to keep the lights on.
“The pandemic years in 2020 and 2021 were particularly difficult, not just in person or not in person, but just knowing that the usual sources of income were incredibly difficult,” says Bailey. “We got through this with strong support from the government and continued support from our partners which was not always guaranteed.
The TIFF film market did not suffer from going online. The 2020 festival saw Netflix pay more than $60 million for three films (Halle Berry’s Bruised, Pieces of women with Vanessa Kirby, and Malcolm and Marie starring John David Washington and Zendaya) and Solstice Studios drop $20 million in global deal for Mark Wahlberg’s drama Good Joe Bell.
But, like other major festivals, Toronto has found that after two years of virtual presentations and online market screenings, film executives are once again hungry for in-person encounters.
“You have to have that direct contact and see how your film plays in front of a real audience to judge its potential,” says Giona A. Nazzaro of the Locarno Film Festival, another top festival that has returned to an in- person event this year. “We discovered that the hybrid model just didn’t work.”
As major film festivals return, the desire to improve access is clashing with financial demands from sponsors and the wider film industry. For the latter, it seems, there’s still nothing that can beat the lure of those hundreds of strangers crammed into a dark cinema.
Etan Vlessing contributed to this report.